Islamic Art and Architecture: Unit 2 Muslim places of worship and devotion

2.6 The Great Mosque of Damascus, Syria (706–15)

The style of this mosque is called the ‘Arab’ or the ‘hypostyle’ mosque. It consists of a prayer-hall with parallel rows of columns supporting the roof, and a courtyard surrounded by arcades. This style was dominant in the Arabic-speaking Middle East, in North, East and West Africa, and in Muslim Spain. The importance of this mosque is twofold:

  • It is the earliest surviving model of the hypostyle or Arab mosque. Its form and architectural details provided a model that was followed by various other mosques, including the Great Mosque of Cordoba.
  • It provides a clear evidence for the Muslim inheritance of local Byzantine building traditions and decorative techniques and the adaptation of this heritage to the needs and ethos of the new Muslim community.

Multimedia activity: The Great Mosque of Damascus

Plan of the Great Mosque of Damascus. 706–15.

© Creswell Archive, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (EA.CA.2047)

Click on the highlighted word in the text to see the area or architectural feature in plan. Note the following

  • The mosque is a rectangular building with an open courtyard on its northern side. The courtyard is surrounded by porticos on three sides, and a covered prayer-hall on its southern side.
  • The courtyard is oblong in shape, measuring approximately 123–136 m by 48–50 m.
  • The prayer-hall measures 136 m by 37 m. It comprises three aisles separated by arcades running parallel to the qibla wall with two tiers of arches each. Each aisle is covered with a gable roof resting directly on the upper tier of the arches.
  • A broad transept or central bay leads to the mihrab. It runs from north to south and ends, on the courtyard side, with a triple arch set within an arched frame under a steep gabled roof. It cuts the prayer room in half with eleven arches on each side.
  • The transept is covered with a dome that dates to 1082–3. This eleventh-century dome replaces an earlier wooden dome.
  • The first minarets in Islam were the four-corner-towers of the Temple of Jupiter, on whose site the current Great Mosque of Damascus stands. The mosque currently has three minarets, of which only the south-western is original (surmounted by a fifteenth-century superstructure). The northern minaret dates to the end of the twelfth century.

Optional personal activity: The Great Mosque of Damascus

To learn more about this mosque and see more pictures go to the ‘Umayyad mosque’ page of ArchNet’s Digital Library.

Discussion activity: Mosaic decoration

This activity aims to introduce you to the themes and patterns of mosaic decoration under the Umayyads. You will read about and collect images for the mosaic decorations in the Great Mosque of Damascus and/or the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Depending on the time you have available, you may wish to focus on just one of these.

Discuss the origins of the mosaic tradition and the decorative themes (including colour schemes) in the relevant thread of the Worship and devotion forum.

An introduction to Byzantine decorative themes and use of mosaic is available from the ‘Byzantine Art under Islam’ and ‘Frescoes and Wall Painting in Late Byzantine Art’ pages on the Timeline of Art History of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.